Jewish Retreat & Conference Centers – What Say You!

Nesiya Lodge at Capital Retreat Center
Nesiya Lodge at Capital Retreat Center

By David Phillips

More than a dozen years ago a small cadre dreamed and planned for the creation of Capital Camps & Retreat Center in Waynesboro, PA. We reached out to Jewish institutions for operational, programmatic and construction guidance. The response was limited, not that people did not want to help, but because this kind of expertise was not readily available.

Hold that thought and take a step back for a moment – have you attended a Jewish retreat or conference over the past couple of years? Maybe you created a strategic plan, learned or enhanced a skill, bonded with hereunto unknown people; perhaps it was a condition of employment or simply a chance to relax with family and friends. Whatever the motivation you are not alone, as these activities have been taking place for decades. But here is the kicker – little data exists regarding the impact or cost effectiveness of these efforts. Moreover, there is no organization dedicated to leveraging this information and providing support to the operators, organizers or participants.

Fast forward to today and imagine an entity that amplifies existing or future investments and encourages additional growth and impact – sounds good? We think so and to test this hypothesis we are about to undertake the first phase of a comprehensive assessment of the Jewish Retreat and Conference Center sector.

We want to explore the possibility that an infrastructure formed to support Jewish retreat and conference centers could coordinate and align the work of operators, organizers and benefit participants and therefore the entire Jewish community. This body would encourage greater visibility for immersive events and the dissemination of best practices. Ideally it would reinforce the value proposition and ensure that ‘all ships rise’ as information flows.

Let’s define the ‘players’ and environment first. Providing the setting for these ‘events’ is the responsibility of the Operators of Jewish retreat & conference centers, such as stand-alone or Jewish resident and day camps. Organizers spend time and valuable resources creating and executing the various programs that ignite passion, and Participants explore their spirituality, debate, learn, relax and connect. Facilities can be rural or in-city, multi-million dollar or modest. As people we are usually most comfortable, and therefore open to new ideas or experiences, in environments that reinforce our values and beliefs and feel ‘familiar’ – hence the benefit of a uniquely Jewish location. Think of a room with a mezuzah on the door or where art talks to your heritage and the food reminds you of family. Whatever the trigger(s) it brings comfort and intimacy.

The benefits associated with a Jewish retreat or conference center experience come from an assertion that participation itself is immersive in nature. We, the Jewish people, have bought into the notion that immersive experiences work big-time, for example: Jewish camping, trips to Israel and Hillel on campus. The immersive ‘captive element’ propels participant impact, and repetition reinforces the positive outcomes. We believe the impact is not limited to participants, but also touches and inspires passion in the organizers and operators themselves. Truly a win-win-win!

Starting with operators, and with the help of two Foundation partners who are funding the assessment, we will gather information and begin to identify the scope, scale and potential need of an organization to support this sector. ‘Discovery’ will consist of three phases:

  1. An environmental/landscape survey to capture baseline data.
  2. Interviews with operators and key organizers.
  3. Analysis and next steps.

Within the ‘Operator’ cadre we have identified two subsets that may benefit from a national entity.

  • Stand-Alone Jewish Conference and Retreat Centers
  • Jewish Camps (Overnight and Day)

While the initial assessment focuses primarily on operators, we are keenly aware that there is no central body an organizer can turn to for guidance, impact data or program resources. In effect, significant dollars are spent undertaking these events with little capacity to share outcomes or build a body of knowledge. Moreover, from national umbrellas to local/regional groups, synagogues or issue-focused not-for profits, there is no coordinated advocacy to extol the impact of these immersive experiences and help ‘sell’ them to wary organizations, board members, funders or participants.

What might a national entity provide and encourage? We have some ideas, but remember, nothing is set in stone. Here are some initial thoughts pending the survey findings and deliberations.

1. Best Practices

  • Data collection and analysis of financial health, participation and operational costs.
  • Benchmarking – evaluation tools that encourage excellence.
  • Product marketplace – identifying services (from food to technology) that maximize cost-efficiency.
  • Program Sharing – creating a ‘program bank’ for the development and dissemination of ideas.

2. Strategic Support

  • Master planning, capital projects and fundraising assistance.
  • Viability evaluations for existing/potential operators and capital investors/donors.
  • Professional staff – career pathways and training opportunities.
  • Leadership/board – effective governance, engagement and training.

3. Learning and Advocacy

  • Gatherings to share best practices and learn from experts in the hospitality field, etc.
  • Advocacy that reinforces the importance of these immersive experiences.

4. Excellence, Visibility and Service Upgrades

  • Development of ‘national centers of excellence’ in key US markets could highlight immersive experiences as an essential community ingredient that supports stability and growth.
  • Encourage investment in existing/new facilities resulting in increased use and engagement.

As we explore examples from other faiths, it is worth noting that the Christian Camp and Conference Association (CCCA) was created in 1963 to leverage the power of immersive experiences. Today CCCA provides guidance and counsel to 850 member organizations. This assessment will begin to fill the knowledge divide regarding the Jewish conference and retreat sector, and will help determine if the time has come to harness its power with a more organized and planed trajectory.

How do I get involved? It’s easy and we encourage you to do so via these two options:

1. Operators – regardless of whether your camp (day or overnight), retreat or conference center handles zero or thousands – complete the survey. The more data we amass the better. It will take you just 10-15 minutes To be included just email me your contact info and you will receive the survey in late September/early October.

2. Interested Parties – share your thoughts and ideas via email to the address below.

Reinforcing and promoting Jewish identity is a priority. The Jewish retreat and conference sector is an immersive, mission-critical tool that appears ripe to be leveraged. We believe operators and organizers would benefit from help now. Waiting another 10 years to bring this to scale doesn’t appeal – let’s see where this assessment takes us. It promises to be an interesting journey – how about we get the results and retreat to a Jewish space and explore our options!

David Phillips is the Study Director and Principal of Immersive1st Consulting: a practice dedicated to harnessing the power of immersive experiences to engage people and build community. Contact: david@immersive1st.com